The 2020 Tokyo Olympics have already begun -- a year late and quite unwisely.
The American women soccer team got blasted by Sweden, 3-0, on Wednesday in Japan, in some early tournament action, before the Opening Ceremony Friday night.
So now the Games are official – gritting their way toward the finish line, in the face of a worldwide pandemic that humans of all nationalities and political systems have been too stupid to control.
This has been evident as the International Olympic Committee and the Japanese organizers willed the Games to begin, despite another surge taking place.
Athletes are already testing positive – and this is before they were shoe-horned into a dense city, into Olympic hideaways where athletes are theoretically sequestered.
But why should the IOC and the hosts show sense when most of the world is giddy on the concept that we are back to “normal?”
I already agree with the skepticism collected by the great reporter, John Branch, in the NYT this week. Branch talked to observors around the world, who wondered if it is time to end the Olympic Games.
After covering seven Summer Games and four Winter Games, from 1984 into 2010, I was veering toward the position that the Games existed mostly because of television money, blaring commercials around the world, but costing far more than they generate for the host countries and victimized host cities – all in the name of a faux ideal.
I know I became disenchanted with the Olympics when I saw cities and entire countries disrupted by the demand for specialized Olympic facilities. After the two-week festival, the traveling circus packed its tents and moved on, it mostly left the detritus and debt behind, as documented in John Branch’s article.
My first Games were in 1984, when Los Angeles and top executive Peter Ueberroth used existing facilities in the region, producing a profit for amateur sports groups, not debts for the host region. Some other host cities tried to think of leaving a lasting upgrade – Barcelona, in 1992, for example, and to my surprise, Atlanta's downtown was upgraded by the Olympic presence -- but others just spent and spent for a 17-day jamboree.
Having said that, I must add that some parts of the Olympics were wonderful to cover – great events intriguing personalities, in special places all over the world. I always tried to keep my perspective of whether these Games had lasting value for the cities that lusted to be the host, but I do have memories of events and competitors:
In Los Angeles in 1984, I had the good luck of watching a charismatic American volleyball team, with a lanky, thoughtful star named Flo Hyman, lose the tense gold-medal match to China. For me, that one tournament was as good as any sports playoff or tournament I have covered.
My first Winter Games – Calgary, 1988 – reminded me that I don’t like being cold, so I gravitated to events with a roof over them, like figure skating….and hockey…and speed skating, with rocking music and gaudy costumes as powerful athletes whizzed around the oval track.
The Olympic ceremonies often had the air of ersatz royalty – coronations! knighthoods! weddings! – but once in a while they touched the heart, as in 1996, in Atlanta: the final carrier of the Olympic torch, on a runway high above the stadium, turned out to be Muhammad Ali, already suffering from the Parkinson’s disease that would kill him way too young. We held our breath and prayed for him, as Ali willed himself to complete his mission.
In those same Atlanta Games, in the first Olympic soccer tournament for women, epic Americans like Michelle Akers, Julie Foudy and Mia Hamm won the gold medal.
In 2002, in Salt Lake City, Sarah Hughes, not yet 17, blended talent and will in her stunning gold-medal figure-skating routine. I had written about her family, John and Amy Hughes and their five other children, good people, who lived near me on Long Island. Sarah Hughes is now a lawyer in New York City; her dad, John Hughes, a great hockey player from Cornell, passed in August of 2020.
I admit, I often slipped out of the Olympic bubble, to see how real life was going on in the host nation. At the 1998 Winter Games in the modest Japanese mountain town -- Almost Heaven, West Nagano, as I called it – I watched residents sweep overnight fluffy snow off the sidewalks. In Athens in 2004, my wife and I played hooky one day, taking the slow ferry to Hydra and swimming off the rocks. In Beijing, Chris Clarey and Jennifer 8 Lee and I visited one of the old neighborhoods – a hutong – and ate in a restaurant run by Uighurs, the persecuted ethnic minority.
But maybe my best “Olympian” moment came in 2004 when the shot-put competition was held on the grounds of the very first Olympic games in 776 BC, in the Olympia region west of Athens. To inhale that dust was a grand honor.
Since I retired at the end of 2011, I admit, I have never watched a minute of Olympics Games, Winter or Summer – too much babble, too many commercials, too much else going on. In the next few weeks, I will rely on the NYT’s great staff to provide the words and pictures --- and I hope everybody gets through without calamity.
Don't we all have things we miss in this pandemic -- beyond family and friends?
I miss my home town twinkling on the western skyline.
I wrote about this a few months ago.
On Sunday I did something about it.
With the plague at full blast, I had to deliver something to the NYT plant in the College Point section of North Queens.
It was a cold day, very little traffic. Ideal driving conditions.
My muscle memory told me how to handle the turns and merges and quick decisions of parkway driving in the city,
With every mile, my exhilaration grew.
First stop was the NYT plant; since my retirement in 2011, I have become friendly with the people there.
On a quiet Sunday morning, I dropped off the item and kept going.
The museum had large banners facing the Grand Central Parkway. I remembered one winter in junior high school, when I went ice skating in this building with some classmates. Now it is a vibrant community asset; I thought of my friend who helps run it, and the Panorama of New York City, where we have "bought" our family home in Holliswood.
I drove around to the front of the awesome building on the glacial hill. My mom was in the first wave of students in the new building -- in 1927. She loved the school as much as I do; it was our major bond, She passed in the very nice Chapin Home, a few blocks away, in 2002. The city, in its dunderhead way, terminated Jamaica High a few years ago -- a DiBlasio failure -- but there are several smaller schools tucked away in the building that will last forever.
I drove along Henley Rd., near the house where the worst president in American history used to live, soiling the image of Queens. There was no time for a drive past our old house, where my mom moved nearly 100 years ago; I had to pick up my order of Shanghai dumpling soup in Little Neck.
My Sunday morning excursion temporarily dispersed the miasma of the murderous pandemic.
I'll keep in touch with the many dozens of my Jamaica contemporaries; we are very tight.
Maybe some quiet Sunday morning soon, I will drive into The City (Manhattan, that is) -- just to see it.
Not too long ago, Harvey Araton and Ira Berkow were gracing the sports pages of The New York Times with their wise columns.
Now they are both issuing books with their very personal views of the world.
Harvey’s book is “Our Last Season: A Writer, a Fan, a Friendship,” about the bond between him and Michelle Musler, who for decades was a fixture in the stands just behind the Knicks bench in Madison Square Garden.
Ira’s book is “How Life Imitates Sports: A Sportswriter Recounts, Relives and Reckons With 50 Years on the Sports Beat,” which just about tells it all.
(In alphabetical order)
Araton praises the wise businesswoman who was always there – for the Knicks and for him. He describes himself as the child of a project in Staten Island, who earns his entry into sports journalism while battling his own insecurities.
As he works his way from the Staten Island Advance to the Post to the Daily News, his talent and earnestness impress not only editors and readers but also a fan literally looking over his shoulder in the Garden.
Musler saw all – could read the body language, maybe even read lips, of the Knicks and the opponents and the refs. She had put her people skills to great advantage in the corporate world, undoubtedly by being wiser than the average (male) executive.
The Knicks were her outlet, she freely told friends, her social life. Everybody knew her – the players, nearby fans, reporters, ushers, even the team PR man, who left a packet of media stats and releases for her before every game. How cool was that?
Musler more or less adopted Harvey, counseled him, shaped him up, told him to aim big. She became friendly with Harvey’s wife, Beth Albert, and sometimes met Harvey after a game to debrief him on what she had seen from her perch.
When he fretted whether he was worthy of the Times job being offered, she figuratively slammed him up against a steel locker and gave him what a high-school coach I knew called “a posture exercise.” And when his career took a sour detour, she shaped him up, to the point that in retirement he remains an extremely valuable contributor to the Times sports section. Harvey is still what somebody once called him: “The Rebbe of Roundball.”
In return, Harvey came to know Michelle Musler – her strange childhood, her husband leaving her with five children, her career, her need to make money, her love of the Knicks. Her decades of working with male executives prepared her for a searing analysis of James Dolan, the miserable owner of the Knicks.
As Michelle’s health deteriorated, Harvey would sometimes drive from New Jersey to Connecticut to the Garden to get her to a game.
And when Michelle Musler passed in 2018, Harvey wrote a beautiful obit for the Times:
Ira Berkow’s book is also personal – about a talented, ambitious kid from Chicago who made his way to New York and became a fixture in the Times and also in books, not all about sports.
Ira has touched on most stars of the past half century – Muhammad Ali! Michael Jordan! He sized up O.J. Simpson, before and after! He had lunch with Katarina Witt! He shot baskets with Martina Navratilova! He also shot baskets with a retired Oscar Robertson! He schmoozed with Abel Kiviat, then America’s oldest living medalist! And he scrutinized a brash real-estate hustler named Donald Trump!
One of my favorite segments is about Jackie Robinson – who broke baseball’s disgraceful color barrier in 1947. Ira recalls being 15, a high-school athlete himself, watching the Dodgers take on the Yankees in the 1955 World Series.
In 2018, with JR42 long gone, Ira was being interviewed on TV about Robinson and came up with a description of how Jackie Robinson had faked the Yankees’ Elston Howard -- a catcher playing left field -- into throwing the ball to second base while Robinson steamed into third.
Later, he remembered interviewing Robinson in 1968 about his thought processes in testing Howard, who was out of position because Yogi Berra was the catcher. Robinson seemed to deflect Ira’s analysis, but the audacious move remained in Ira’s fertile brain.
A few years ago, Ira looked it up in the official play-by-play for the 1955 Series: it confirmed that Robinson, by whatever logic, had victimized Howard into throwing behind Robinson.
This section confirms the instinctive genius of Jackie Robinson and also the enlightened journalistic observation powers of Ira Berkow.
* * *
Most of sports have been thrown off balance by the pandemic, but these very different books by Harvey Araton and Ira Berkow remind us how great sportswriters have enriched us by writing about the world, on and off the court.
Four superstars, overlapping.
I am referring to Rafa Nadal, one of the nicest people I have met in sports, who won his 13th French Open on Sunday. I am also referring to Chris Clarey and Karen Crouse of the NYT, who wrote about Nadal in the Monday paper. And I am also referring to Art Seitz, master tennis photographer, who has been snapping away, well, forever.
I loved reading about Nadal and seeing Art’s photos, having become a Nadal fan in 2011, the only time I met him. I had heard he was a good guy, a sportsman, and he lived up to his reputation on a miserable day, with the remnants of Hurricane Irene lashing New York much as the tail end of Hurricane Delta was drenching New York on Monday.
He had done his obligatory media conference and was eager to get back to Manhattan, but he was promoting his book and had promised me a few minutes for an interview. We got into a conversation, and I mentioned that I had covered eight World Cups by then, including my first, in his country, Spain.
I think it's fair to say that reporters do not expect their subjects to show much, or any, interest in them. But Nadal seemed intrigued that an American knew and loved soccer, even my modest dose of knowledge. I knew that his uncle, Miguel Angel Nadal, had been a mainstay for Johan Cruyff at Barcelona in La Liga in the 90s, and I had covered Spain’s World Cup championship in 2010. So we talked soccer…as well as tennis….as well as his penchant for cooking for himself and entourage on the road.
He could have ducked out at any time, but he stayed and talked, and my impressions of him since have been confirmed – a centered person who has willed himself to the top of tennis, and can speak with compassion about the pandemic, knowing it is more important than tennis.
My pals Chris Clarey and Karen Crouse caught him perfectly in Monday’s paper – Chris concentrating on the match and the career, Karen focusing on his values and his acquired trilingual abilities. When I first saw Nadal nearly two decades ago, he could not speak any English in public. Now he is eloquent, from the heart.
My article in 2011:
For a sample of Art Seitz tennis photos, check out his Facebook page:
Oh, my goodness, it was 20 years ago.
Today, the NYT reprinted an article I wrote 20 years ago today, on the Mets-Cubs league game in Tokyo.
It was a pleasant surprise to be back in the paper and be reminded of a great trip and how much I love visiting Japan.
This, at a time when there is much sadness at postponing the Tokyo Olympics to next year.
Gomen'nasai (I am sorry)
The article jumped out of the Monday sports section – about Benny Agbayani’s grand-slam, pinch-hit homer in the 11th inning that defeated the Cubs.
It was the end of a grand assignment – two Mets exhibitions around Tokyo, plus two official games, showing me how much the Japanese fans know about baseball, and America.
It kicked off so many memories:
---Japanese fans booing good-heartedly when activist Mets manager Bobby Valentine (with his love and knowledge of Japan) had Sammy Sosa walked intentionally with first base open.
“Japanese fans never boo the manager for this,” a Japanese reporter told me. “But they know it is normal in American baseball.” How cool – like young couples on Friday date night, going to TGIFriday’s glittering outlets all over Tokyo, for ribs and fries.
---Standing outside the Tokyo Dome that week, watching fans congregate and spotting a woman wearing a Mets uniform with Swoboda 4 on the back. Haruko told me, in quite good English, that she was a Mets fan – had seen a Nolan Ryan no-hitter in the States (for the Angels) and in fact had stayed with Ron and Cecilia Swoboda in New Orleans.
---The great Ernie Banks, retired by then, sidling up to me around the batting cage and repeating his iconic phrase: “Let’s play two.”
---How I spotted Masanori Murakami, the first Japanese national to play in the American majors – I covered that game, too, in 1964 – and re-introduced him to the Mets’ roving pitching coach, Alvin Jackson, who was his opponent in that epic debut. They laughed and shook hands and chatted, so comfortable with each other, as old players are. Alvin passed last year; I was so honored to have shared that moment with him.
My other memories of that trip are less baseball-centric:
---Zonked on jet lag, taking my wife on the Tokyo subway, telling her how easy it would be, and emerging in sunny Ueno Park for a nice stress-free walk (and subsequent first meal in a neighborhood)
---Being driven from bustling Tokyo to a famous shrine by our former Long Island neighbors, Fumio and Akie, the nicest couple. Originally from Osaka, Fumio did not know every inch of Tokyo – does anybody? – but he relied on a novelty GPS built into his dashboard, and he negotiated all the tight little turns and ramps to get us on a freeway to a leafy shrine.
--- Salarymen – and women – stopping to offer us directions when we appeared baffled by the odd numbering systems.
--- After the baseball work, visiting historic Kyoto, where a woman addressed my wife in French; she had lived in France and loved to use that language. My wife, who speaks some French, sat on a bench and they chatted for an hour, about La Belle France.
---And finally, since it was 20 years ago this week, having people in Kyoto apologize to us because the cherry blossoms were late.
In this grim spring, I think of all the places we cannot go, but when I think of baseball…and Japan….and friends….and spring...and having been privileged to go places and write stories, the day seems better.
Jacob DeGrom was supposed to throw the first pitch to the champion Washington Nationals, a few miles west of me, on a sunny, cool day.
Instead, I was going to write something about the absence of baseball.
Then I read about a valued colleague who passed the other day, from the virus, and that delivered another reality check.
We have enough reminders that life is not normal – and when will it be again?
I go out in our town just enough to run a few errands.
The other day we ordered takeout from one of our favorite places in our town. It was gut-wrenching to join a small line indoors, six feet of separation, picking up packages.
It was mid-day. The place should have been packed with moms and their squeaky little kids, with rambunctious teen-agers from the high school, with working people on a break. Instead, chairs were upturned on tables and
a few workers were packing up pizza and regular meals for the customers.
A lady in the drive-in window at the bank smiled at me from behind the glass.
From my car, I nodded at the crossing guard near the post office.
The Town Dock was blocked off. Normally, dozens of people would be parking at mid-day, to sniff the salty bay and maybe take a walk.
I don’t need to discuss the ominous details about the virus in the NYT. Did you see those amazing charts – online and in “the paper?”
We get the paper delivered every morning in blue bags, straight from my friends at the plant in Queens. They cannot work from home. Be safe, all of you.
Our family sounds okay – six other adults working at their homes, three younger ones doing schoolwork online, two others also safe, last we heard.
My wife was on this early, urging me not to ride the subway, see old friends for lunch. We are getting by. Blessed. But there is the anxiety – expressed by doctors and nurses who go on TV, talking of shortages, displaying what soldiers in combat call The Thousand-Yard Stare.
They are on the front line, sent in without the right equipment, in a nation nominally in charge of a business failure who was already a dangerous fool when people voted for him.
Now the combat is raging. Leaders like Andrew Cuomo try to pull things together, shaming “the government” into getting a clue.
Friend of mine is self-quarantined in his apartment. His doctor thinks he might have the virus, but cannot help him get a test.
“Opening Day,” I texted. “Robin Roberts vs. Don Newcombe.” That is our generation. The Brooklyn Dodgers were our team.
Sometimes, for a few minutes, baseball will get you through. My man Mike From Northern Queens sent me a link about picking the best catchers in the history of every major-league franchise. Yogi and Campy. And some, from newer franchises out west, I hardly recognized the names of the choices.
That is the beauty of baseball – the history, the meaningful statistics at all positions, never mind the new analytics. The arguments. Carter or Piazza?
Opening Day. Baseball fans believe there is nothing like it. So much tradition. My colleague Bill Lucey in Cleveland sent me a piece he wrote a few years ago about the history of presidents at Opening Day.
I remember in the early 80s, when the Mets’ opening day was snowed out, and I squawked, how nature could do this to us?
Sports don’t cut it right now. I don’t care if the Olympics were postponed, or even the European soccer tournament.
I wish I could concentrate on the Mets, fret about whether the Mets will finally give a steady position to Jeff McNeil, let him swing at the first pitch and get something going.
I wish I could worry about the starting rotation, now that Noah Syndergaard is getting Tommy John surgery today. (Apparently this is considered essential surgery.)
Yankee fans, other fans, bless their hearts, may have their own preoccupations.
However baseball is not essential at the moment. What is essential is convincing our “leader” that instead of sending people back to work with a nasty virus on the loose – to save “his” economy – we need to stay in place, including baseball players and baseball fans and people who work at the ballpark.
No Game Today.
"The day after my 80th birthday, which overflowed with good wishes, surprises and Covid-safe celebrations, I awoke feeling fulfilled and thinking that whatever happens going forward, I’m OK with it. My life has been rewarding, my bucket list is empty, my family is thriving, and if everything ends tomorrow, so be it.
"Not that I expect to do anything to hasten my demise. I will continue to exercise regularly, eat healthfully and strive to minimize stress. But I’m also now taking stock of the many common hallmarks of aging and deciding what I need to reconsider."
--Jane E. Brody, my pal in the NYT newsroom, oh, a few years back, in the Personal Health column, Sept. 13, 2021.
"People have said to me, ‘You’re fully vaccinated. Why are you being so careful?’” said Dr. Robert M. Wachter, professor and chair of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “I’m still in the camp of I don’t want to get Covid. I don’t want to get a breakthrough infection.”
---Tara Parker-Pope, The New York Times, Aug. 16, 2021.